Pay Toilets

A funny thing happened the other day. I had written a story, believe it or not, about pay toilets. You know – or maybe you don’t know – those dime-eating coin operated door locks that controlled access to every stall in most public restrooms. I must admit, the locks didn’t have quite the impact on the male population as for women. For the most part, men walked past them. We were on our way to another wall where we lined up, shoulder to shoulder, staring at the paint in front of us and things written on it. But women everywhere seemed to have reason to despise those devices.

In my story, which was being subjected to peer review, I planned to use this anecdote as a hook leading into another story from my airport days. I thought it would catch the readers’ attention. Not only did it not have the intended impact, but the attempt led to a whole different conversation among younger writers.

Some may be aware that in 1975 New York State passed a law to ban the collection of money from public restroom facilities. Simply put, a person should not have to pay to pee.  The makers of those particular locks filed suit and, in 1976, the New York Supreme Court ruled against them.

For many years prior to that ruling, a lady would be required to carry a dime – not two nickels or ten pennies – when she entered a public restroom. In order to relieve herself, she would, first insert the dime into a slotted mechanism that held the door closed, then twist a handle to open the door. In front of her was supposed to be a clean, private stall. Too often it wasn’t. Mind you, there always was one free stall, rightfully required by an earlier law. Being free, however, it was often less attractive than the unattractive pay toilets.

I’m told an interesting twist to this process by a reliable source. On a regular basis, women engaged in some sort of undocumented conspiracy to avoid paying the required dime. The first person of the day properly inserted her dime, (she took one for the team) and, when finished, held the door open for the next lady . . .and so on throughout the day. Though, I doubt anyone stuck around to keep the door open if no one shared the restroom at that moment.

So, here’s the rub. It’s not only youngsters who, just like they don’t know how to use a rotary dial telephone, have no idea of what I’m talking about. Pretty much, no woman younger than the “baby boom” generation has had the pleasure of frantically searching for a dime while crossing her legs. No wonder the ladies rebelled.

The round table discussion that ensued after reading my story that other day, made it quite clear that my introduction was neither eye-catching nor connected to the story that followed. My “go-away” lesson? When writing a story, never attempt to define life through my own lenses without making sure that the reader understands or, at least, is aware of what is under that lens. Heaven forbid I would do that.

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